Contributed by Tanvi Rajvanshi
Tan Wei Ting’s CA$H and Syamsul Bahari’s Damaged on the Inside are two very different films, but are both connected by the divide between cash and money. Where cash is a tangible, legitimized entity, money is simply a concept. Like most concepts, the definition of money varies depending on who you ask. So if cash is no longer synonymous to money, then what is money? For these two filmmakers, money becomes a tool to explore the extents of genre. More specifically, both Tan and Bahari use comedy to highlight the absurdity of a simultaneous omnipresence of money alongside the growing absence of cash in our day to day lives. In doing so, both films show the many ways in which comedy can reveal things about society, even if the film is not consciously socially-driven.
CA$H is about four middle-aged supermarket cashiers, who lock themselves inside the supermarket as they are suddenly fired and replaced by cash machines. As the film progresses, we learn more about these women and the value of their jobs. Damaged on the other hand is a pop-punk inspired comedy about two scruffy young guys named Shak and Momo, getting in trouble with an equally scruffy gangster for a job they did wrong. The film becomes a mad race against the clock for Shak and Momo to pay the boss back for the money they lost. Even though money plays a significant role in both films, the filmmakers vastly differ in terms of tone and characters, approaching this topic from different but equally relevant perspectives.
Both of the films depict people in situations of desperation by exploring the absurdity of how cash and money are moving further and further apart. In Damaged, the only solution the boys have is to give the gangster a lottery ticket to pay off their debts. They are not actually chasing cash, but chasing a piece of paper they believe to be worth thousands of dollars. Throughout the film, this ticket we are made to think is extremely valuable becomes just a piece of paper when the lottery numbers are wrong. The sense of desperation heightened by a literal lack of cash goes to show how money is a stretchy elastic concept. Its value is never concrete, and simply for that reason, people are caught in an endless wild goose chase. Similarly, in CA$H, the characters are stuck in a supermarket inundated by products with specific monetary values. At the brink of losing their jobs, all they can see around them are walls and walls of things that money can buy. Though the cashiers are locked in a place worth thousands of dollars, it means nothing without each item’s relation to money. Both filmmakers use this distancing of cash and money as comedic fodder, however, to different ends – showing the vastness in effects comedy creates via film.
Money is often used as an indicator identify the issues plaguing the members of every demographic. Bahari and Tan both use money as an artistic tool to illustrate the concerns of different generations, especially by approaching comedy in very different ways. Damaged is a much more carefree film, seemingly without a social message. However, the frivolous nature of Bahari’s comedy is precisely the point. This notion so commonly ascribed to ‘youth’, gives the film its childlike tone. The main concern for the protagonists are immediate, to meet a six hour deadline and get this gangster off their backs. Each of Shak and Momo’s plan is instead Bahari’s set-up to an eventual comedic failure. The jokes make it clear to the audience that the concept of ‘money’ is not meant to be taken seriously. However, by heavily featuring this pop-punk attitude in the score and the fast-paced cinematography of the film, Bahari takes a negative assumption about the financially irresponsible millenial, and turns it into a fun celebration. In this way, comedy in Damaged is used as a tool to communicate the energy of the younger generation, where problems need instant solutions, and nothing – including money – lasts for long.
The comedy in CA$H, on the other hand, is carefully placed with the intention to convey a specific message. In this film, Tan uses money to emphasise the problems that arise when rapid technological development coincides with an aging population. The tone is much more mellow – the comedy instead arising in moments where the characters have mundane discussions about buying fish and toilet paper. These lighter moments help Tan ease her audience into processing the heavier sociological concerns this film is actually about. After a mad chase through the grocery aisles for the store keys so that the cashiers can open the doors and accept the manager’s compensation offer, there is a sudden abrupt darkness. Lisa has cut the power and is quietly sobbing in the corner, as the question of “what will we do after this?” hangs in the air. In the final scene, As Xiao Mei’s voice narrates instructions on how to pack groceries, it becomes a reminder of how useless this knowledge is without having the job of a cashier. The four main characters are not just facing the loss of a steady income, but more importantly the loss of a sense of purpose, with only useless knowledge left behind. In the face of this, no compensation package can suffice. In CA$H, Tan demonstrates how comedy can be a useful way to approach a serious topic in a manner that engages the audience without degrading the integrity of the issues explored in her film.
At the end of the day, both filmmakers demonstrate how the quotidien concept of money is linked to an interconnected web of issues. Money is not just the thing we use to buy other things, but rather it can represent the perspective of anyone at any position in society. By using comedy to highlight the distance between cash and money, both filmmakers compel their audience to consider what money may mean to them. In facing such a consideration, we may come to realise money (not cash) surfaces in almost every aspect of our lives.
About the writer
Tanvi Rajvanshi has a background in English Literature and Film Studies. She was in the Youth Jury and Critics Programme for the 27th edition of the Singapore International Film Festival. She has since returned to the 28th edition of SGIFF as a writer, and has also been a contributing writer for SINdie. Her biggest cinema pet peeve is the violent glaring white screen of a cellphone in a nice dark hall.
The views set out in this article are those of the author and is not representative of AFA’s official opinion.